David Gonzalez/The New York Times
Like a bronze god descending from the heavens, Roberto Clemente was gently placed atop a black granite base on Monday morning. A handful of hard-hatted souls watched in wonderment as construction workers secured him.Clemente – the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, humanitarian and, some would say, martyr – finally graced the state park in the Bronx that bears his name.
David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.
“Clemente is home,” whispered Maritza Hernandez, the sculptor who spent much of the past two years crafting the statue. “I can’t believe it.”
In Morris Heights? Outside a playground? A slugger from Puerto Rico by way of Pittsburgh?
To generations of Puerto Rican New Yorkers, Clemente was the countryman who uplifted them when others shunned them. Clemente showed them, and anyone else who beheld him, pride and majesty on and off the field, breaking baseball records and racial barriers. On Sept. 30, 1972, he reached his 3,000th hit. Three months later on New Year’s Eve, he was killed in a plane crash while taking relief supplies to survivors of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua.
This week, Clemente reached another milestone – becoming what many believe is the first Puerto Rican honored by a statue in a park in New York City. In the Bronx, no less, the center of the known Nuyorican universe.
“This is huge,” said Felix Matos Rodriguez, a historian and president of Hostos Community College. “Clearly, not just because of what he did as a sports figure, but because of his humanitarian streak, which was exemplified by his death. There is also an element of Latin American solidarity with him. He is somebody everyone can embrace.”
Frances Rodriguez had recently taken over as administrator of Roberto Clemente State Park when a reporter came by in 2004 asking if the park had a Clemente statue. She thought her staff was playing a prank on their newly arrived boss. They were not. The reporter had been following the footsteps ofJesus Colón, a writer who had wondered a half-century earlier why the city had no statues honoring the accomplishments of a fellow Puerto Rican.
The encounter got Ms. Rodriguez to wondering. She consulted with the state parks commissioner and the legal staff, who encouraged her. She explored endowing a foundation to finance the statue and its upkeep.
“I had no clue,” Ms Rodriguez said with a laugh. “You look up different things and the prices – $80,000, $90,000. You wonder how are you going to get that kind of money and how many fund-raisers. You figure it’s going to be a lot of work.”
Like running a park, which she did with energy, but not much spare time. The project was put on hold – until Rafael Toro visited the park for a domino tournament two years ago. Clemente held a special place in his heart. As a child, Mr. Toro once met the man, still marveling decades later how the athlete’s hand engulfed his, and how his short lifetime of superlatives inspired him.
“I looked around and thought there was something missing here,” said Mr. Toro, who is director of public relations for Goya Foods, the tournament’s sponsor. “I saw a picture of him on a wall, but was that all? I asked Frances ‘Is there a statue?’ She told me no, there’s a lack of resources.”
The thought nagged at him every time he drove past the park on his way to Goya’s New Jersey offices.
“Then I thought, why don’t we do something?” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Clemente had done Goya-sponsored baseball clinics in Puerto Rico. Cristobal Colon – Clemente’s close friend and the man who drove him to the airport the night he died – had been a Goya executive in Puerto Rico.
“Also, there’s no statue of a Puerto Rican in New York City,” Mr. Toro said. “And our president is a big baseball fan.”
He met with the president, Bob Unanue, and other executives. Although Mr. Toro had a list of 10 reasons the company should underwrite the statue, it was a quick meeting.
“He had us at ‘What do you think?’” Mr. Unanue said. “And I said yes.”
On Thursday, he and others – including Clemente’s sons Luis and Roberto Jr. – gathered at the park for the statue’s unveiling. Clemente towered over them, immortalized in one of his most famous poses, doffing his batting helmet as he acknowledged the cheers for his 3000th hit. Ms. Hernandez had rendered him faithfully, from his imposing physique and piercing gaze, to the folds in his uniform and the veins in his hands.
“When I was working on it I’d say ‘Ayudame Roberto! Help me,’” she recalled. “And he did.”
For now, Clemente will live by the playground. In time, he will be moved to the park’s entrance. All who enter will be greeted and challenged by his words engraved in granite.
“Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
A Puerto Rican man who made a difference even though it cost him his life rests atop that pedestal. The statue – like everything else about him – is slightly larger than life.